Chances are either you or someone in your circle of 49ers fans has raised up this question at some point in the last couple of years. Michael Crabtree was a two-time unanimous All-American while playing for Texas Tech in 2007 and 2008, and racked up hardware at a staggering level during his time there. When he declared for the 2009 NFL Draft, he was the undisputed number one Wide Receiver on the board throughout the NFL Combine, Pro Days, and pre-draft workouts - even if he didn't participate in most of those events after choosing to undergo surgery in early March to address a stress fracture in his left foot. Make no mistake about it, he was a projected top-five overall pick, so when he was on the board at the 49ers' 10th overall pick, for a team whose best WR the previous season was a 35-year old Issac Bruce (61 catches, 835 yards, 7 TD) he was a no-brainer to be selected.
And so began the drama.
Support this writer and shop Amazon
Crabtree raised a red flag almost immediately into his rookie season, holding out of training camp, pre season, and the first four weeks of the season as he demanded a contract he deemed good enough for him. He did not play in the team's week five 45-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and made his debut in the following game in week seven, a 24-21 loss to the Houston Texans where he showed promise, catching 5 balls for 56 yards, but no touchdowns. He played in every game the rest of the season, and was targeted 86 times, catching 48 passes for 625 yards. His averages in his rookie season: 7.82 targets, 4.36 catches, and 56.82 yards per game. He scored two touchdowns and lost one fumble, his only fumble in his career thus far.
Leading up the 2010 season, Crabtree missed some practice time in mid-August after suffering a sore neck following an attempt at an acrobatic catch. He missed the first two pre-season games before returning to full practice, and despite of this he also missed the third preseason game after his neck got stiff during warm ups and Mike Singletary decided to leave him out of the game. Usually the third preseason game is the most important, as the first unit will at times play into the 3rd quarter and this game is regarded as the one that best shows where a team stands heading towards the regular season. Leading up to the final preseason game, on September 1st, the infamous heated exchange between Vernon Davis and Crabtree took place in practice, assumingly a point when Davis lashed out at Crabtree over his lack of participation during the preseason. Crabtree, among other notable starters, did not suit up for the final pre-season game.
Nonetheless, Crabtree was good and ready to go for the 49ers' week one match-up vs the Seahawks in Seattle, a 31-6 defeat. His stat line that day: eight targets, two catches, 12 yards. Two of those targets resulted in interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown. After the first three games of the season, Alex Smith had targeted Crabtree a total of 19 times, resulting in 6 catches, 81 yards, no touchdowns, and four interceptions. Thereafter Crabtree's numbers somewhat improved, at times showing flashes of the number one WR he has been expected to be, yet after playing in five more games than the previous season, he only hauled in seven more passes. He finished with 101 targets, 55 catches, and 741 yards.His averages in 2010: 6.31 targets, 3.44 catches, and 46.31 yards per game. He scored six touchdowns and finished 44th in the league in receiving yards, 39th among wideouts.
In 2011, Crabtree suffered a broken left foot during player-only offseason workouts which caused him to once again miss all of the preseason. He played in the regular season opener, a 33-17 win at home over the Seahawks, but only caught one of two passes thrown at him (for four yards), and sat out the second half as he was obviously not fully recovered. He proceeded to miss the following game vs the Cowboys, a 27-24 loss in overtime. He played in every game thereafter, undoubtedly his best statistical pro season, catching 72 passes for 874 yards, although only four touchdowns. His averages in 2011: 7.6 targets, 4.8 catches, and 58.27 yards per game (8.14, 5.14, and 62.43 if we only look at the last 14 regular season games, which is a more accurate assessment)
Fast-forward to today and Crabtree is currently not fully participating in practice as a result of what is believed to be a right calf strain suffered back on July 27, the first day of training camp. Understandably, a lot of attention is being paid to whether he will play in the 49ers' pre-season opener this Friday at 6pm at Candlestick Park.
Looking back at his pro career so far, it's easy to see why many fans are skeptical of whether Crabtree will live up to the expectations placed upon him coming out of college. It is important to note that expecting him to replicate his college numbers (12.81 targets, 8.88 catches, 92.08 yards, 1.58 touchdowns per game), would be unrealistic as he went from a spread offense at Texas Tech (where his QB, Graham Harrell, broke the NCAA record for career passing touchdowns), to a 49ers team with plenty of questions at QB and lots of focus in the running game, never mind a lack of talent among the rest of the WR core. Nonetheless, it could be argued that his lack of activity during pre-seasons throughout his career has led to his slow starts the last couple of seasons, and although he may not fit the injury-prone label, he's certainly not far from it. As much as it may be denied by teammates and coaches, to the naked eye it is clear that the chemistry between Crabtree and starting QB Alex Smith is not at the level of, say, Smith and Vernon Davis. Could the gap between those two relationships become smaller by Crabtree fully participating in an offseason? Let's take Crabtree's last season as an example, and project his 16-game season stats using the averages from the last 14 regular season games: 82 catches, 999 yards, and maybe another touchdown - not quite the first 49ers WR with at least 1000 receiving yards since Terrell Owens in 2003 (sorry), but with the extra rapport with Smith, who is to say the numbers wouldn't have gotten another bump? Those projected stats would nonetheless surpass the numbers put together by the Smith-to-Davis connection.
Crabtree, after all, came into the NFL with much higher expectations than Smith - the 2005 draft was weak at the QB position, and Smith was taken number one overall more for need than talent. No QB in that draft was viewed as a can't-miss elite prospect, including current NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, who was the second QB taken in that draft at 24th overall. On the other hand, Crabtree was the unanimous best WR of the 2009 draft, regarded as an elite prospect and often compared to Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson - granted some of the comparisons were based on his listed 6'3" height at Texas Tech (Crabtree is 6'1") but he has the talent to put up similar production, and there is more than size to being the best WR in the game (see: Rice, Jerry).
So is Crabtree a bust? Not even close. While he has yet to produce like a top ten WR in the NFL, he is a 24-year old coming into his fourth NFL season, therefore he still has plenty of opportunities to become one of the best WR in the game. Furthermore, he is a very good blocker in the running game, has full support from his teammates, and the team continues to improve its pass-receiving threats in other areas of the field which may lead to better opportunities for him. At the same time, there are some questions about his work ethic and whether he can be a go-to guy in clutch situations. His injury history to the feet and ankles also creates concern as to whether his route running will improve.
Nevertheless, as I finish up this piece, a poll at the 49erswebzone forums asks whether Michael Crabtree is a bust - only 51% of 180 votes so far felt enough confidence to say NO. Only Crabtree can take that majority vote to a resounding response. Which way will he tip the balance to? It remains to be seen.
* If you're wondering where some of these stats come from, credit goes to www.fftoday.com for the number of targets Crabtree has had in the NFL, while his college target numbers come from this excellent piece by Mark Sandritter that compares Washington State's Marquess Wilson to Crabtree during his college career now that Wilson will be playing for Crabtree's college coach. I will also like to thank Matt Barrows and the team at the Sacramento Bee's website for the excellent reporting and ease to research Barrows' blog.
* As always, comments/questions are welcomed. Also feel free to follow me at @DiegoDelBarco on twitter.